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Liberation Psychology

Liberation psychology emerged in Latin America in the 1970s in resistance to traditional forms of psychology which paid little attention to the political structures which caused personal distress. Some of the key ideas from this movement are explored in the book Liberation Practices: Towards Emotional Wellbeing Through Dialogue, co-edited by the British-Nigerian  psychologist Taiwo Afuape

The key ideas include:

  • Understanding mental health problems as complex social phenomena rather than individual psychological ills.

  • Ensuring that psychology is used to bring about social transformation rather than conformity by supporting people to resist oppressive structures and relationships.

  • Critiquing dominant discourses and rejecting the idea of a universal, individual, impartial and technical approach to social problems.

  • Mobilising people’s strengths to draw on the creativity, resistance and resourcefulness of everyday people rather than elevating professional, medicalised interventions. 

So what does this mean in practice? How might these ideas be applied in a therapy room? It might feel obvious to point out that financial precarity or uncertain immigration status is likely to have a detrimental impact on someone’s mental health. It may well also feel like a conversation with a therapist isn’t going to change the external world all that much. To an extent, that’s probably true, especially if you are seeing someone in private practice. But if that conversation locates the causes of distress in the social structures we inhabit rather than in the minds of individuals, we may feel more empowered to seek transformation of the external world rather than our psyches. 

As Taiwo writes, “Individuals neither stand outside of their social world nor are passive receivers of it.” How we respond to our experience will be influenced by the beliefs we hold which in turn will be formed in the context of many different cultural ideas and practices. Evaluating the impact of these ideas and practices on our lives can allow space for resistance to them, giving us more choice about the position we take up in relation to dominant discourses. 

For anyone who’s spent five minutes reading about social justice on Instagram, it probably feels trite to point to systems of oppression as a source of discontent in our lives. But naming social structures or identity categories doesn’t always leave us very well equipped to navigate the intricate, mutable and surprising ways in which power differentials shape our lives and relationships. Therapeutic conversations can make the operation of power more visible in our lives, which may increase our opportunities for consensual co-operation and solidarity with others. 

Western psychology itself has produced its own theories and practices, many of which are presented in mainstream culture as universal scientific truths about human nature. Perhaps you’ve noticed people on dating apps proclaiming their secure attachment style. But attachment theory, like all psychological ideas, was produced in a particular social context. It was developed in the post Second World War years by John Bowlby, a white British psychologist. 

Many women in this period gained independence through paid employment which limited their time child rearing at home. One feminist critique of attachment theory is that it has a strong bias towards a hetero-normative and patriarchal model of the nuclear family. If adult patterns of relating are formed based on an infant’s capacity to bond with its rarely absent birth mother, this may well restrict that mother’s capacity to pursue her own interests and desires. The model also devalues more communal forms of parenting which are more common outside the white nuclear family of Western industrialised societies. The theory might then be used to bolster racist ideologies, for example the myth of absent black father figures leading to dysfunctional families. 

If a therapist looks for individual dysfunction caused by families of origin that don’t fit the Bowlby model for healthy parenting, they will probably find it. Conversely, if they elicit stories of creativity, resourcefulness and co-operation, these will become the experiences and truths around which you shape your life. 

In the book referred to above, Taiwo writes that “liberation is inherently social: therapy that focuses on what is wrong with the individual has the potential to uphold oppression by influencing people to fit into pre-existing norms and adjust to that which is unjust.” Some of the tools that I suggest on this blog are derived from deficit models of psychology. For example, the philosophy that underpins DBT is that people have a skills deficit - learn the skills and your problems will be solved. This breeds compliance, not liberation. 

Affect regulation alone does little to enhance our capacity for co-operation in resisting oppression. Breathing in for 4 and out for 8 can leave us feeling a little more in control of our nervous systems. But there is no inherent value in this, other than that it might temporarily blunt the edges of our discomfort. Its value depends on the meaning that you make of these practices and the use to which they are put. How might your down-regulated nervous system allow you to think in a more nuanced way about power? Does it afford you opportunities for pleasure that might otherwise have felt inaccessible? Are you better able to negotiate consensually with another person because you feel calmer? Discerning the impact of these tools on yourself and the people around you is crucial in deciding how and when you might want to use them and to what political ends.


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